Russell & Ayer, Lakoff & Johnson

April 16, 2014

…and more.  Too many unheralded nonacademics on parade, in AtP, to name in the subject line.  Carlin Romano’s implicit invitation, in case you’ve forgotten: join the parade. 

Oxbridge superstars Bertrand Russell (Cambridge) and A.J. Ayer (Oxford) are the classic 20th century British philosophers at the head of the procession in CoPhi today (Russell was actually born in the 1870s and made it to nearly the century mark). We’ll squeeze in another Cambridge don, Frank Ramsey, if time allows.

That’s a small philosophy pun, PB’s Ramsey expert Hugh Mellor is also an expert on time. And it’s in marginally bad taste too, given that poor Ramsey’s un-Russellian time was tragically short: he lived only to age 26. But as Mellor says, he accomplished far more than most philosophers manage in that fraction of a lifetime, including the “redundancy” theory of truth that (ironically, paradoxically!) implies the gratuity of theories of truth without disavowing truth’s centrality to philosophy. 

Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”)…. Russell @dawn… Russell Ayer… Logicomix]

Then, another passel of Americans from AtP, including a linguist-philosopher duo on the power of metaphor, a transplanted Anglo-Manhattanite neurologist, and a Unitarian guru. We Yanks win, don’t we? -if only by the numbers.  

So much has been said about Russell, and by him. The truth question was pretty cut-and-dried, he thought, like religion and the pragmatic approach in general.

There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. If it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you shouldn’t… it’s dishonesty and intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true. 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts. 

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence. 

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. 

Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?  [Why I Am Not a Christian... More Russell]

Clearly, “for Russell there was no chance of God stepping in to save humanity.” The concept of an Afterlife is, to coin a phrase, “nonsense.” We must save ourselves. (As Carl Sagan would later say, there’s no sign of help coming from anywhere “out there” to rescue us.)

Russell said family friend and “godfather” J.S. Mill provided a satisfactory answer to his own early childhood query, posed by so many of us: “What caused God?” If anything in the universe can exist without a cause, why can’t the universe itself?

Having settled the question of God to his own satisfaction, he turned full attention to the philosophy of logic and mathematics, to paradox, to set theory, and other conceptual conundra. If something is false when it’s true (“This sentence is false” etc.), then it’s back to the drawing board for the logicians. It’s not even a close shave. (Yes, that’s another marginal philosophy pun- this time alluding to Russell’s paradox of the barber who shaves only those who shave themselves.) As for the extent of my own interest in set theory and its ilk, I think young Ramsey said it best: “Suppose a contradiction were to be found in the axioms of set theory. Do you seriously believe that a bridge would fall down?” No I do not.

“How can we talk meaningfully about non-existent things?” That’s never really hung me up, nor anyone who appreciates good literature. Either young Russell was not a big reader of fiction, or maybe he thought he had to justify his reading. I’m glad he cared about “the present king of France,” but I frankly could care less.

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, with his Verification Principle, loved to detect and discredit nonsense. Good for him, we’re choking on it. But he went too far. “Metaphysics” (not to mention “ethics” and “religion”) may have been a dirty word, for him, but there’s far more sense on earth (let alone in heaven, if a heaven there be) than was dreamt of in his Logical Positivism

Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own, in his old age. Interesting, in light of his youthful philosophy as exposited in Language, Truth, and Logic, “in every sense” (he admitted while still a relatively young man) “a young man’s book, “according to which unverifiable statements are meaningless nonsense. 

Old Ayer claimed his premature dalliance with death in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]

…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. 

“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!! 

No moral system can rest solely on authority. [Or as Russell said: nothing externally imposed can be of any value.]

There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.

And with that last insight the former Wykeham Professor of Logic may at last have hit on a profound truth far beyond formal language and pedantic logic. Ayer’s greatest moment, for my money:

One of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987… Ayer — small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old — was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ”Do you know who [the bleep] I am?” Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ”I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” ”And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,” Ayer answered politely. ”We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” nyt 

If George Lakoff and Mark Johnson had been at that party there might have been real fisticuffs. Probably not. But the metaphors would have been flying, for sure. 
For linguist Lakoff and Oregon philosopher Johnson, we live and reason by metaphors. “Philosophy in the flesh” depends on speaking and thinking in ways that mirror our condition as embodied reasoners. The logical categories we project onto our experience directly reflect the most basic facts about our ways of being. We have fronts and backs, so do our cars and tvs. No coincidence. They may overstate the Cartesian  element in traditional philosophizing a bit, but as William James said: “the earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.” Like a prizefighter on the comeback trail, like an underdog who beats the odds, like, well, like a good metaphor.
Mathematician Robert Kaplan makes a whole lot of nothing, and inverts philosophy’s great cosmolo- ontological question Why is there something rather than nothing? It gets confusing, but it’s still pretty amusing. Just like the encyclopedia entry on “nothingness” that goes on and on and on… And then there’s Sartre’s le neant. “Nothingness” made him sick. 
Lately this matter has been taken up by physicist Lawrence Krauss in A Universe From Nothing,and journalist Jim Holt in Why Does the World Exist? Thanks for nothing, y’all. (The universe exists to give philosophers something real to think about. Right?)
But seriously, there’s an important question lurking beneath all this superficial wordplay. Or else there’s important nonsense. If the vacuum of space is not nothing, in even its thinnest manifestations, can we not think the vacuum away and wonder what, if anything, that would leave behind?
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, deals with more tangible mysteries. Why do some people mistake wives for hats? Must have something to do with personhood. Sacks has an “abiding preference for the organic, the human, the humane.” Robin Williams may have been a good casting call, then, since humanity is nothing if not crazy and sometimes manic. 
Like Schopenhauer, he’s a musicophiliac and a fount of epigrammatic wisdom. Unlike Schopenhauer, he’s a nice man. He’d never push an old lady down the stairs, or inform a patient that the world is without point or purpose.

Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.

My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.

If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.

Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes. [Young Ayer, later visions notwithstanding, couldn't see this.]

In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life. 

[Speak, Memory... "Seeing God" (How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies: Atlantic)... How Hallucinations Happen (npr)... TED '09... Desktop diary (scifri)... ]
Sacks has also inspired one of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, whose protagonist in The Echo Makers is based on him. But he’s no guru.
Anthony Storr (Feet of Clay, Solitude…) said gurus claim to be bringers of light, but more often suffer delusions of grandeur or divinity and propound “absurd theories about the universe.” That definition fails to exclude too many accredited academics, but I guess it’s clear that Jim Jones and David Koresh were at the far fringe end of the spectrum. Do we really want to include Jesus and Gandhi and Freud and Jung, with the likes of Gurdjieff (blaming the moon for evil?!) and the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (check your mind at the door)? Seems like much too broad a brush.
Robert Fulghum is no Davidian whacko, though he was born in Waco. He’s a Unitarian Universalist in Seattle, and he was full of occasionally witty (but usually pretty banal) wisdom. Kindergarten does teach important life-lessons, after all. “Play fair, don’t hit, share, say you’re sorry…”
We don’t need gurus, but Van Morrison was wrong about method- we need a better method in philosophy than the search for inarticulate mystical authority- and about teachers. We especially need good kindergarten teachers. Nothing absurd about that.

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McKibbben’s end, Sagan’s rationality

April 15, 2014

In Bioethics today we consider “the natural order,” and the conservative idea that we must perpetually refrain from altering or upsetting it.

In A&P, we get Carl Sagan’s personal and cosmic perspective on God and religious experience, and “Acts” in the Good Book. (442-493)

Bill McKibben has been a hero of mine ever since he published The End of Nature and effectively re-launched the modern environmental movement a quarter of a century ago. I’m not sure he’s always right, but I know he’s always passionately clear-headed and honest about the high ecological stakes we and our fossil fuel Overlords have been gambling with. In Blackford’s fifth chapter, McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age is curtly critiqued as needlessly alarmist. His worries over the prospect that our genetic interventions may rob future humans of meaning are dismissed lightly. Blackford spends inordinate attention on “immortals” and not enough on the potential flattening of ordinary life for us mere mortals, in the brave new transhuman world.

True, “we are ill equipped to predict what activities and experiences will be satisfying , joyful, or meaningful for future people who might grow up and interact in environments quite different from our own.” But that hardly lets us off the hook, when we try to confront the impact of our choices on the predictably-shrunken capacity for choosing of our near (not futuristic and remote) descendants. “These are the most anti-choice technologies anyone’s ever thought of,” writes McKibben.

I do want to make effective alliance with the risk-takers and enhancers as against the Luddites and anti-technologists, truly, but I see no evidence that any of them (including Blackford) has grasped or grappled with the profundity of concern expressed in Enough. It’s not an idle grumble about the unpredictability of life in the 24th century, it’s about the lives our very children and grandchildren will be free (or not) to live.

Carl Sagan, on the other hand, was entirely keyed in to the challenges that will confront our human future. Let’s hope he was prophetic: “there is a pervasive human wish to give a rational explanation for the existence of a God or gods.”

Or, a rational explanation for their absence.

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Peirce, James, Nietzsche, Freud, squirrels…

April 14, 2014

and a cast of thousands. 

Not really. But the docket is suddenly very crowded, must mean we’re getting near the end. 

What a fine Lyceum lecture Friday from our Woodbury neighbor David Wood, on Disconcerting Experience, Kierkegaard’s earthquake, Nietzsche’s eternal return, and much more.

Then on Saturday, a fine night out at the old ballpark in its terminal season. Sunday was hammock heaven, followed by another mind-enlarging and scale-shrinking Cosmos. All this and the return of Mad Men, too!

I’m being selectively inattentive in my appreciations, of course. There was also the usual round of outrages and atrocities and hate-based violence, this weekend. But if you can’t take a moral holiday in April it will be (like every other) the cruelest month, by default. So, like William James I just take my moral holidays. No regrets.

It’s James and his bumptious friend 
 Peirce (and Vandy’s Robert  Robert Talisse on the pragmatists and truth),  Nietzsche (and Aaron Ridley on Nietzsche on art & truth), and Sigmund Freud, and more philosophers/historians/linguists etc. from Carlin Romano. 

Through the years I’ve written repeatedly and delightedly on PeirceJames, and Nietzsche @dawn, especially WJ.

I’m not especially pleased with Nigel Warburton’s take on James, true enough to the letter but not at all to the spirit of his pragmatic conception of truth. More on that later. At least he gets the squirrel right.


Here’s what James actually said, about the squirrel and about pragmatism’s conception of truth:
…Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.
I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as THE PRAGMATIC METHOD. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right… Pragmatism, Lecture II


Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term ‘agreement,’ and what by the term ‘reality,’ when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with…

Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as…

…truth is ONE SPECIES OF GOOD, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. THE TRUE IS THE NAME OF WHATEVER PROVES ITSELF TO BE GOOD IN THE WAY OF BELIEF, AND GOOD, TOO, FOR DEFINITE, ASSIGNABLE REASONS… 

Certain ideas are not only agreeable to think about, or agreeable as supporting other ideas that we are fond of, but they are also helpful in life’s practical struggles. If there be any life that it is really better we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really BETTER FOR US to believe in that idea, UNLESS, INDEED, BELIEF IN IT INCIDENTALLY CLASHED WITH OTHER GREATER VITAL BENEFITS.

‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we OUGHT to believe’: and in THAT definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is BETTER FOR US to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart?

Pragmatism says no… Pragmatism, Lec. VI

This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is “expedient” in a situation James’s critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It’s more like Richard Rorty’s invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a “Santa Claus” philosophy of truth.

James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling’s comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.

Besides, he’s the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he’s the one I’d most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn’t drink. (Too bad they don’t serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters and correspondence, they humanize his philosophy and place his “radical” views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.

They also counter my friend Talisse’s hasty semi-assent to Nigel’s outrageous misreading of the pragmatists as missing “a sense of awe and wonder.” James had it in spades, and so did Dewey and Peirce in their own ways. Likewise Rorty, who did not like being called a “relativist” and who would not agree that “Nazism and western liberal democracy are the same.” Not at all.

But, I do think Talisse does a good job of summarizing James’s rejection of “truth-as-correspondence” as an unhelpful formula, once you move past trivial matters like catching the bus. He’s also correct in pointing out James’s interest in religion as rooted in the lives and experience of individuals, not particularly in God, heaven, the afterlife and so on. He psychologizes and naturalizes religion. It’s mostly about life on earth, for Jamesians, not (again) about Santa.

Speaking of dead philosophers…

Our text rightly (if inconsistently) points out the non-literal intent of Nietzsche’s infamous “God is dead” proclamation. More to come on that too. Meanwhile, the theists among us will enjoy imagining that their God has the last word.

Aaron Ridley points out that Nietzsche split from Schopenhauer (as he eventually split from everyone) over the question of where we should go after god’s “funeral.” Ultimately Nietzsche thought we should find a way to go back to our lives, and to affirm them. Schopenhauer, he decided, was a nihilist content to wallow in ultimate meaninglessness (or adopt that pose)… except while walking his poodles or visiting the art gallery or attending a concert. But isn’t that the very stuff of life? It’s the stuff Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” challenges us to affirm.
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? -”The Greatest Weight” (in The Gay Science [When Nietzsche Wept]

Ridley doesn’t talk about that, but he’s helpful with the Apollonian-Dionysian distinction.

In the final analysis, Nietzsche thought what didn’t kill us, what merely made us suffer, made us stronger. That’s his blustering pose. It’s kind of pathetic. I’d have to agree with James, who pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies” and likened Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to a pair of rabid rats in a cage (or think of alienated Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine, in his room)… largely a cage of their own design.

But what would Freud say?

Freud is darker than Nietzsche… Sheer joy and sheer affirmation of life is pretty hard to find, if you’re being absolutely honest about what reality is.
As long as your ideas of what’s possible are limited by what’s actual, no other idea has a chance. 
If life is a gift, then the more you partake in it, the more you show thanks. Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists

Some wonder what makes Freud a philosopher. In the spirit of Carlin Romano I wouldn’t worry about that. He philosophized (albeit reluctantly, says one biographer) about civilization, psychic health, happiness, religion, the material mind, conscience, consciousness, and the scope of philosophy itself.

Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves itself as if it were a science, and to a certain extent it makes use of the same methods; but it parts company with science, in that it clings to the illusion that it can produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe. Its methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological value of our logical operations…

Like Kierkegaard, Freud endlessly mucked around in the morass of anxiety and depression and, like those other great explorers of the mind, was often accused of being of too depressing. Yet, when pressed to provide some positive vision of health, Freud more than once implied that what is fundamental to happiness is the ability to love and work; that is, to be able to invest in something other than yourself. G. Marino, “Freud asPhilosopher

“Frude had it all figured out.” Barney Fife  [Freud...Freud and daydreaming... lucid dreams...BBC]

Also in the spirit of Carlin Romano, some philosophers who aren’t dead yet…

Historian Francis Fukuyama jumped the gun when he declared, in nearly-Hegelian tones, The End of History in 1989, as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell. Those were heady days, prompting many to pronounce the end-times: Bill McKibben’s End of  Nature, Daniel Bell’sEnd of Ideology, George Leonard’s End of Sex (which really would be the end, as the last Shaker might confirm). Reports of all these ends again invite Twainian drollery: they’re all greatly exaggerated. And as The Hitch said, Fukuyama’s thesis in particular was touted by neocons in an unseemly and unmerited spirit of self-congratulation. History continues.

But to his great credit, Fukuyama “brought light to an area (anywhere within a thousand miles of Hegel) thought by professional philosophers to produce Absolute Obscurity.”

Harvard political scientist Dennis Thompson “argued for as much public discussion as possible,” but also “recognized that the polis occasionally resembles a circus.” 

Choice, unsurprising example: the Tennessee senate’s silliness surrounding the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. They actually drafted ethics legislation including a provision that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me…” What would late-night television comics do, without our benighted legislators to kick around? Easy for them, they don’t get to live here.

Thompson also said, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, that the privacy of public officials “should receive less respect.” But their public malfeasance still gets the lion’s share of my disrespect.

George Fletcher revived Josiah Royce’s interest in the philosophy of loyalty. “America: love it or leave it” is a bad form of loyalty, as was the German people’s to Hitler and the motherland. But what about Camus’s’ mother-love? What about partisan political party loyalty in general? Loyalty to tradition, to church and country? What about loyalty to life itself? What about Carl Sagan’s great statement at the end of Cosmos“Our loyalties are to the species and the planet… to the cosmos from which we spring?”

Many have questioned Noam Chomsky‘s loyalties. Nobody has questioned his impact, in linguistics or in radical politics. Carlin Romano questions his intellectual integrity and “goodwill,” his penchant for character assassination and “ad hominem attacks on those who disagreed with him.” Chomsky thinks himself “in possession of the Truth.” He might benefit from a little more pluralism, and a reading of Pragmatism.

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Autonomy & SETI

April 10, 2014

Autonomy is today’s Bio-topic, and E.T. is A&P’s.

Do enhancement technologies, particularly human reproductive cloning and genetic engineering, threaten the autonomy of children (and the adults they’ll become) and/or liberal-democratic values?

What would the credible discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence in the universe do for or to our sense of species identity?

Is SETI a waste of time, or is the universe a cosmic waste of space? They “believe we are conducting the most profound search in human history — to know our beginnings and our place among the stars.” They even have a Carl Sagan Center, devoted to such questions.

How many planets exists that might support life? Indeed, what is required for life to exist? How does life start? How does it evolve, and what fabulous creatures can evolution produce? How often do intelligent creatures appear in the giant tapestry of life? How can we estimate the number of technological civilizations that might exist among the stars? 

The Drake Equation is an attempt to calculate an educated guess about that last one. HINT: it’s not 42.

What would David Hume say about all this? He’d be skeptical. “The strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and marvelous” must be checked by extraordinary and marvelous evidence. There’s not a lot of that in the local (earthbound) folklore, people are frequently more inclined to believe Billy-Bob took a ride in an alien ship of his imagination than that he saw some flashy lights in the night sky and leapt to fantastic and hallucinatory conclusions. 

As Nicholas Agar says: “‘Cool,’ ‘creepy,’ or alluring ideas are more persistent than merely true ones.” 

And as Hume says: “Always I reject the greater miracle.”

But we should still keep our eyes on the sky, and continue to ride our spaceship of the imagination. It’s a big universe.

Back on earth, meanwhile, we must preserve our capacity for the extraordinary and marvelous experience of first contact. A proper galactic citizen is a free and self-directed agent, not a branded modular assembly of traits it occurred to someone else to try in combination.

If and when we find evidence that we’re not alone in the cosmos, we’ll want to care. We won’t care, if by then we’ve engineered ourselves to feel less like explorers than puppets and playthings. Though Russell Blackford thinks our concerns about the autonomy of genetically engineered children are “largely misguided,” he concedes the point that human psychology is always vulnerable to the perception or misperception of external manipulation.

And yet, some enhancements might actually “boost [our] powers of rational reflection,” might even make us smarter searchers. Great! But let’s be sure it’s our search, not our Chief Engineer’s.

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Kierkegaard, Marx, & more critics

April 9, 2014

Today in CoPhi it’s Marx, Kierkegaard (and Clare Carlisle on Abraham & Isaac in Fear and Trembling), and some more philosophically inclined lit critics: Irving Howe, Harold Bloom, and Edward Said. 

Kierkegaard (whose name means “graveyard”) said something similar to what Hegel more cryptically assigned to the owl of Minerva, when he said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He also said

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use. 

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

The most common form of despair is not being who you are. 

Once you label me you negate me.

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. 

If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!

But what about the possibility of overriding the ethical, humane, and parental demands and privileges of fatherhood in the name of a sacrificial faith? The  Abraham and Isaac story still chills, especially in an age when young women around the world continue to be sacrificed by their pious fathers, brothers, and other young men.

“What if Abraham was wrong?” Or delusional, or sick? His actions “can’t be understood, and can’t be admired, on the basis of any socially acceptable notion of morality.”

And what if some modern Abraham thinks God has commanded him to (say) shoot an 11-year old schoolgirl for being “anti-Taliban and secular,” i.e., for advocating girls’ right to education? [Malala's story... Daily Show]

Honor killings,” such atrocities are sometimes euphemistically camouflaged. There’s nothing honorable about them, and nothing a respectable philosopher can say in their defense.

It’s not just Islamist fundamentalists, btw, who support the abuse and murder of children in God’s name. Ophelia Benson cites an Arkansas congressional candidate who says “God’s law” decrees death for “rebellious children.”

But Clare Carlisle reads Kierkegaard’s pseudonymously-delivered message as less commital, and more philosophically inquisitory: “What is faith?” Is it immoral (“morally abhorrent” in Abraham’s case), irrational, and yet somehow elective and excusable?  Whatever it is, she says he’s saying, it’s not anything to be complacent about. And it’s not something you have just because you go through the motions (i.e., attend church services and criticize atheists). 

Fair enough. But if “the truth of human existence can’t be adequately grasped or expressed in terms of rational thought,” we may be in big trouble.

Marx said some things too.

History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy. 

As Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel. 

Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.  

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Whether Kierkegaard’s and Marx’s words have ultimately been a force for emancipation and the change we need is a question for historians, and philosophers, and historians of philosophy, and philosophers of history. It’s probably best to leave the politicians out of it. [Kierkegaard and Marx @dawn]

But I’d like to hear from a good and thoughtful critic or two. Carlin Romano knows a few more.

Irving Howe was never cowed by academic “pedants and dullards,” in his years of Dissent. (I can never hear that journal’s name without recalling Woody Allen’s line about the rumored merger ofDissent with Commentary…) “This Age of Conformity” was on the money in 1954, and it still is. And the Ph.D. “octopus” is still strangling the life out of too many scholars. We need more “charged autodidacts, bounding out of the library to change the world.” But we and they need to keep our library cards. The world seems to be forgetting how to “long-read.”

Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” may have been overstated, and many of his judgments may have been off-base. But at least he’s been trying to keep the spirit of Emerson alive in our conformist times. The world may still come round to him.

Edward Said is an intriguing figure, one of those whose personal filigrees make them bridges between worlds whether the worlds like it or not. We need more bridges and more “contrapuntal” thinking. “No one today is purely one thing.” 

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Matter more

April 8, 2014

Our Bioethics question of the day: “What’s the harm in genetic engineering?”

In A&P: Just how organic is our universe?

In both instances, the easy answer: it depends. But alarmists have possibly overstated the harm, and we may all have underappreciated life’s potential extent and ubiquity. Apparently, “complex organic molecules are everywhere.” So perhaps life in multiply engineered varieties is an experiment worth risking. The exobiological perspective suggests the experiments are already well underway, and we’re among the first humans ever to enjoy an opportunity to begin seeing results.

A non-reductive materialist – that is, one who admits that at some level it’s got to be true that “physics fixes all the facts,” but insists that non-physical levels of experience and discourse are also real – has to love the last rhetorical question in Carl Sagan’s lecture today: “if we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?”

Makes matter more, of course! Again we see a happy convergence of the varieties of experience, across the science/religion and material/ideal divides. Sagan and James express a similarly non-reductive sensibility.

“To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.” Pragmatism III

Russell Blackford begins by acknowledging the unlikelihood that we’ll soon (or maybe ever) “be able to engineer an embryo to become a child who wants to follow some predetermined career or way of life.” Such a scenario discounts genetic complexity and environmental influences.

He then addresses the harm question by considering cases in which it might be conceivable that someone would object to having had their genetics tinkered with by well-meaning designers (presumably parents), even if the tinkering boosted intelligence or specific aptitudes.

Tinkering in the spirit of a Rawlsian social engineer would be justified only if it “improves the child’s prospects no matter what life plan she decides to pursue,” leaving it to her to decide. But are we rightly confident that genetic engineering might ever be so precise as to allow room for decision?

Suppose Howard Gardner is right, and there are multiple intelligences whose distribution among individuals is various. Supppose, further, that specific forms of intelligence and the aptitudes based upon them are vulnerable to disturbance by ham-handed efforts to “improve” a person’s life-prospects?

What, in other words, if the modular model is right? What if “any attempt to boost one intelligence module, such as that for musical ability, might reduce the individual’s capacity in some other area, such as skill in social interaction?”

That’d be problematic, alright. More problematic, perhaps, than the uneven distribution of talents and skills already provided by nature, the present genetic lottery system, and the vicissitudes of nurture and its absence. It’s one thing to be “born this way,” another to have been prenatally patterned. Isn’t it?

One way or another, the parade of permuted human types will continue to evolve. The pace of change is about to quicken in a big way. Sagan suggests an arresting image to capture the accelerating/exhilarating possibilities.  “The parade of ancestors moving at the ordinary pace of walking,” beginning with your father and moving back through each successive generation, “would take only a week before you got to a quadraped.”

Will it still matter, as the parade proceeds (maybe “progresses,” but that may be question-begging) that “at the molecular level we are all virtually identical?”

More pointedly, as we begin to contemplate the possibilities of genetic engineering: Do we “have any idea of the possible range of life?” Elsewhere or here?

No. Something wonderful is waiting to be discovered. Or created.

Or something else.

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Mill, Darwin, Gardner, Burke

April 7, 2014

Today in CoPhi it’s John Stuart Mill (and Richard Reeves on Mill’s On Liberty), Charles Darwin, Howard Gardner, and Kenneth Burke. 

“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” J.S. Mill‘s statement sounds surprisingly Buddhist/ascetic, for a philosopher whose name has come to be associated with libertarian self-actualization and (later) Jamesian liberalism. Understandable, perhaps, after an execrable childhood when his father pushed him much too hard to excel. He had a nervous breakdown at twenty. Cautionary tale, young scholars? [Mill's Autobiography]

But he rebounded impressively, going on to become one of the most popular philosophers in the western world (definitely one of my personal favorites), an early champion of feminism, and a friend of personal freedom in general.

Mill tried to correct Bentham’s indiscriminate “happiness” by introducing a quality distinction among pleasures. I’d love to endorse this move, and say things like: unit for unit, an inning of baseball is far superior to a quarter of football. (We might agree, though, that both are superior to “push-pin” and some poetry.) But happiness, pleasure, satisfaction et al have to be left to the judgment of the beholder if they’re to be actual motivators of conduct. So, I agree with Mill in principle and in conscience, but must stick with Bentham in practice. [J.S. Mill up@dawn]

But the harm principle, and On Liberty (1859) in general? I’m with him.
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.
I love too what he says about Socrates and truth. In Utilitarianism (1861) he adds,
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. [JSM]

And remember this, when we discuss William James and “what works”: “The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful.”

Mill says we all know that some of our opinions are untrue, but must seek out or even invent the dissenting opinions that will correct them. But many or even most people are more like Thomas Hardy’s “Phillotson,” aren’t they? They don’t want to question everything, they don’t really want to question much of anything. They only “want to lead a quiet life.” Is that liberty? Or is it intellectual death?

Richard Reeves notes that Mill has by now become an English “national treasure,” losing some of the dangerous edge that made him relevant in the first place. But his message still resonates for many, right Brian? We must take responsibility for our own beliefs, actions, and lives, and for our unique personal potential. We’re all individuals. We don’t have to follow anybody. We can be “self-made.” (Hear that, B.F. Skinner?)
On Liberty wasn’t the only groundbreaking, earthshaking, worldview-making publication of 1859. What was the best mindless eye-opening idea anybody ever had, Dan Dennett?
If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin and philosophy... Darwin@dawn... evolution... Dennett...Matthew Chapman... Scopes Trial... Loyal Rue] 

We were talking about Hegel’s idea of history as a progressive march to expanded human consciousness of reason and freedom, driven by ideas in conflict (“thesis-antithesis”). I think we all have to admit (though of course we-all don’t, in these environs) that Darwin’s discoveries were a big hitch ahead on that road. His autobiographical account of an argument he had with the Captain of his storied ship (the Beagle) over slavery is instructive in this regard:
In the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.

Darwin and Fitzroy patched that one up, and history is now clear about the winner of that debate. Progress, right? Fitzroy would later regret his role in Darwin’s saga, and our species’ climb up the tree of life from ignorance and superstition.  But Darwin’s big idea, like Lincoln’s, was a great emancipator of the human spirit.  They shared a birthday, curiously, and (as Hegel might have said) a zeitgeist.

So Darwin offered an account of our proximate origins that does not require the theistic hypothesis. He himself remained agnostic on the question, unlike our contemporary Richard Dawkins. He’s reviled by many Americans (deluded or not), but I can only envy the “popular understanding of science” he and others have proffered students in the U.K. and that our public schools continue to neglect.

Revisiting Darwin’s autobiography, and one of his more sagacious but plaintive reflections:
If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Don’t let it happen to you, kids. And remember: “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and flourish.” Actually he said they “multiply,” but I think he’d be okay with my revision. 

Maybe that will help answer the student’s question that caught me so flat-footed yesterday in CoPhi: “What does any of this evolution stuff have to do with philosophy?”

Only everything, on my reading. Evolution by natural selection is possibly the best idea anyone ever had, as Dennett says. It brings our quest for meaning into meaningful harness with the rest of nature and life, provides the widest available perspective on our origins and destiny, links us to the primordial past and the possibility of a wondrous future for our species, and replaces disingenuous skepticism (a topic that came up yesterday in connection with scientific realism: can any reasonable person really doubt the existence of atoms etc.?) with a promising conceptual framework to unite all the disciplines of learning.

And as John Dewey said, in “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy“:
Origin of Species introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion… making many sincere and vital efforts to revise our traditional philosophic conceptions in accordance with its demands.

Darwin helped us understand that the world and all its species, and possibly the entire universe, are in dynamic and mutually-formative relations with one another and with their respective environments. Those in closest proximity are vital environing influences themselves, competitors for existence and co-creators of life. They are change-agents, in perpetual process of growth and adaptation (or demise). Nothing is fixed and final and forever. Our thinking must be flexible and adaptive too.

But maybe the best answer to what’s philosophical about evolution can be explained in  simpler terms still. I’ll visit the kids’ section and get back to you. Meanwhile here’s a start:

The Tree of Life begins with Darwin’s childhood and traces the arc of his life through university and career, following him around the globe on the voyage of the Beagle, and home to a quiet but momentous life devoted to science and family… a gloriously detailed panorama of a genius’s trajectory through investigating and understanding the mysteries of nature.

As we noted recently, when discussing David Hume’s rejection of intelligent design, it’s all really pretty simple, and wondrous, and beautiful.

Carl Sagan’s version of the story is very good.

But maybe you’ll find this easier to hum. Take it away, Eric the Orchestra Leader:

It’s the sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see, and life, and everything in this amazing and expanding universe that philosophers are trying to understand. Makes you feel kinda small, but also kinda special. We’re the ones who get to be here and sing along.
Howard Gardner defends “multiple intelligences”-linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal. The more, the better. Our schools have not yet caught up with his insights, but the best are trying. 
“When I was in college,” Gardner says, “my hero was Edmund Wilson.” 
Wow. When was in college, I was reading To the Finland Station and Patriotic Gore. I’m still awe-struck at the guy’s capacity to absorb and emit words.
I don’t know much about Kenneth Burke, another logorrhea-ridden  “word man” and literary critic, but I do know I approve his message that we ought to conquer our “warlike impulses” and tame (if not “eliminate”) “differences that defeat a sense of oneness.”
And I can appreciate his style. “He made up his philosophical life as he rolled along.” Didn’t know there was any other way.

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Enhancement, nature & wonder

April 3, 2014

Today in Bioethics it’s Russell Blackford on enhancement and the oft-invoked but seldom-truly-honored Harm Principle of J.S. Mill (Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies). We may want to go back and look at that Blackford video [website, twitter] a bit too, to get the Aussie cadence in mind. Having the author’s voice in your reader’s ear makes the text a little livelier. 

Then in A&P, the first of Carl Sagan’s marvelous but long-neglected Gifford Lectures of 1985. They’ve literally been pulled out of a forgotten drawer, lovingly dusted by Ann Druyan, and restored to their rightful place at the center of our cosmic conversation. We’ll definitely want to sample his videos, though most of us probably already have that unique voice filed firmly. Maybe even joyously. I think this is my favorite quote in all the cosmos:

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

Once again, I’ll be making an attempt to connect dots between these two courses and their two coincident texts. Blackford and Sagan both represent the attitude of bold intrepidity in exploration of the inner cosmos of enhanced human capacity and the outer cosmos of the stars. Both defend “liberal” values. Both think we have to take some risks, personally and as a “transitional species,” if we’re to flourish. They’re not especially perturbed by the prospect of homo proteus, “a self-designing, self-directed, bafflingly varied form of life.” Sagan in particular was always more concerned about homo self-destructivus. 

Both would agree, we’re at (or at least approaching) a milestone juncture in our species history: we have the means and the technology to ravage and possibly destroy ourselves and our pale blue dot, “the only home we’ve ever known” and the only one we can occupy in large numbers for the foreseeable future.

But we also have, and are developing, the tools that just might save us. Grasping that, whatever else you think of the hubris of “playing Craig Venter,” was the point of our attempt to comprehend synthetic biology and its potential near-future applications.

Both dream big dreams of human (or trans-, or post-human) flourishing on an unimaginably satisfying scale. Sagan said something wonderful is somewhere waiting to be discovered. I think that’s Blackford’s premise too, though discovery for him may at first glance look more like invention. We’ll see. 

As previously noted, Sagan was “scientistic” in his way (which was not Alex Rosenberg’s). But he had an answer for those who would draw from scientism an ill-advised excuse to denigrate the human search for meaning, purpose, value, truth, beauty, and the good.

Human beings are machines constructed by the nucleic acids to arrange for the efficient replication of more nucleic acids. In a sense our strongest urges, noblest enterprises, most compelling necessities, and apparent free wills are all an expression of the information coded in the genetic material. We are, in a way, temporary ambulatory repositories for our nucleic acids. This does not deny our humanity; it does not prevent us from pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful. 

Experience: he took it seriously. Sagan saw – no, let’s use the timeless authorial present tense – Sagan sees science as a spiritual enterprise, once “spirit” ceases to be a repository of fear and ignorance and instead measures our sense of wonder and our will not merely to believe, but to find out.

If that sounds like a cheap shot (borrowed from Bertrand Russell) at William James’s “Will to Believe,” Druyan made sure to correct any misunderstanding by choosing for this published version of her husband’s Gifford Lecs a title mirroring WJ’s Varieties. 

Experience is always the crucial common denominator for humans, the mere fact of it far more unifying (when we’re honest) than any local or temperamental differences over its religious or scientific permutations. 

But there are outliers on both sides of the science-religion divide, extreme fundamentalists and eliminative reductionists who would bemoan and bewail and discredit one another’s testimony without the barest effort to understand its sources in experience. 

Bottom line, and working hypohesis: “experience” is not just a collection of stories we make up to console ourselves over the outsized cosmic immensity that sometimes makes people feel small. 

No, it’s where we meet reality, for James and Sagan and Blackford too.

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Hegel, Schopenhauer, Skinner, Maslow, Coles

April 2, 2014
In CoPhi we’re into the 19th century, with Hegel (and Robert Stern on Hegel’s dialectic) and his arch-rival Schopenhauer. And here come the Germans now, led by their skipper Knobby Hegel…

And in America the Philosophical‘s 20th century, here come the psychologists:  it’s common sense, behaviorism, Skinner, Maslow, and Coles. 
Hegel was the ultimate optimist, Schopenhauer the uber-pessimist. I prefer to split the difference with meliorism, myself. More on that later. [Hegel up@dawn... pointless will]

They’re both in the song, if that helps. Let’s see… Schopenhauer and Hegel were both out-consumed by David Hume.

But it would probably be more helpful to relate the Germans to their predecessor Kant.

Schopenhauer and Hegel tried to go beyond Kant’s proscription against specifying the “thing-in-itself,” the ultimate “noumenal” reality beneath the appearances. For Hegel, History’s the thing. For Schopenhauer it’s Will.

An amusing sidelight: in spite of himself, and his intent to renounce personal will (so as to starve ultimate Will, or at least deprive it), Schopenhauer was stubbornly competitive with his philosophical rival Hegel. He insisted on lecturing at the same time as the more popular Hegel, with predictable results

But you have to wonder if his auditors understood a word Hegel said? Maybe free gas was provided? (See William James’s “observations on the effects of nitrous-oxide-gas-intoxication” and his essay On Some Hegelisms - ”sounds like nonsense, but it is pure on-sense!”)

That’s funny, but not entirely fair. Hegel wanted to fly with Minerva, through a glorious dawn. Any given snippet of Hegelian prose may be impenetrable, but his overall objective is clear enough: he wanted us to understand ourselves and our lives as active participants in the great progressive unfolding of history, of the coming-to-consciousness of spirit (“geist”), of the birth of enlightenment and freedom. Friendly aspirations all.

My old Mizzou prof often spoke of  “Friend Hegel,” and so did Michael Prowse.

To the degree that we are thinking beings, Hegel says, we have to consider ourselves as part of a larger whole and not as neatly individuated। He calls this mental whole Geist, or Spirit, and tries to work out the rules by which it develops through time… Hegel didn’t regard Geist as something that stands apart from, or above, human individuals. He saw it rather as the forms of thought that are realised in human minds… What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good.

And that’s why, as Stern points out, 

Hegel thinks that one important movement in history is the movement from thinking that just one of us is entitled to freedom (a king, say) to some (the patricians of ancient Athens, say) to all of us, where obviously this development relates to changing views of what freedom is, what we are, how we relate to one another… I’m not free unless I’m working for the good of society.

That’s not Schopenhauer’s view, nor is it even remotely close to his mindset and general sensibility. Anything at all ambitious, let alone something as grand as the liberation of society and triumph of good, was to him just more fuel for the Will. Will is a voracious, never-sated, all-devouring blind force or power that uses us, and everything else in its path, to no end beyond its own perpetuation and expansion.

Moreover, Schopenhauer was morose and constitutionally dis-affected. He despised happiness as a form of self-delusion.

But I have to admit: for such an old sourpuss, Schopenhauer’s a lot of fun to read. His aphoristic Art of Controversy is a good place to begin.
The average man pursues the shadow of happiness with unwearied labour; and the thinker, the shadow of truth; and both, though phantoms are all they have, possess in them as much as they can grasp. Life is a language in which certain truths are conveyed to us; could we learn them in some other way, we should not live. Thus it is that wise sayings and prudential maxims will never make up for the lack of experience, or be a substitute for life itself.

And his Studies in Pessimism are oddly cheerful.

One of the lesser-known but more intriguing facets of Schopenhauer’s philosophy was his belief that music is our point of entree to Will, and to ultimate reality.

Schopenhauer, like Rousseau, loved his dog…So maybe he knew a little something about love.

Carlin Romano summarizes his book so far as a common-sense turn from epistemology fanaticism towards recognizing “all the philosophers in America who haven’t been philosophy professors.” 
Next, he turns to psychologists B.F. Skinner, Abraham Maslow, and Robert Coles.
Skinner, behaviorist and social engineer, thought he and we could reinforce the behaviors we consider “positive” in ourselves, our children, and our society. 

Techniques of positive reinforcement and cultural design could, if applied over time and on a grand scale, save the world from the catastrophes of urban decay, ecological ruin and uncontrolled population growth. Far from being an evil, antihumanist scientist, Skinner was the greatest humanistic scientist of our time.

So wrote his fawning biographer, who (unlike me) was untroubled by Skinner’s deterministic move “beyond freedom” (and dignity). “What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement? Or vice versa.” Are you asking me, Professor, or the rat in your box? Or your daughter, in her “Heir Conditioner”? [Skinner on Operant Conditioning-BBC]

Skinner’s contemporary Abe Maslow, said to have a “messiah complex” and a very high opinion of himself, gave us “peak experiences,” “self-actualization,” the hierarchy of needs,” and ultimately, perhaps, positive psychology. He may have been a megalomaniac, but those are mostly good things. So is Commencement Addressism, “the commonsense view that everyone should become all he or she can be in life.” That’s just Aristotle and human potential. He was right: he did know more than Plato.[Being Maslow... Esalen]

Robert Coles, child psychiatrist and (like me) Walker Percy fan, [Rivendell/Brinkwood teahouse...Percy, Foote, & Faulkner] comes across here as a wonderful teacher and a better human being. “Who ever heard of a philosopher that actually listened to others, let alone children?” [That's a little harsh.] “But Coles listened.” He has a genuine feeling for the lives and minds and hearts of children, and especially the children of crisis. Listen to himtalking about Ruby Bridges and the heroic children of the civil rights movement in America.

Speaking of whom… I hope Romano finds room in a future edition of America the Philosophical for the late David Halberstam, whose great civil rights testament The Children should be known and read by every American.

In Hegelian terms: we’re not quite “free at last,” not yet; but when you realize just how bad things were only yesterday, and the day before, you have to believe in progress and what psycho-linguist Steve Pinker (following Lincoln) calls our “better angels.” And you have to believe in freedom.

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Humanity Enhanced, Varieties of Scientific Experience

April 1, 2014

Too busy putting exams together to reflect much, this dawn. But this afternoon, before or after those exams, we’ll have plenty of time to begin reflecting on Humanity Enhanced and Varieties of Scientific Experience… 

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